Feminist Writers Festival – Q&A with Liz Conor

We’re thrilled to be supporting the inaugural Feminist Writers Festival, taking place in Melbourne from 26-28 August this year. We’ll be featuring interviews with several artists and Committee members over the coming months in the lead up to the event.

Our Editor/Founder, Zoya Patel, will be speaking on a panel during the Networking Day on Friday 26 August – to find out more, and see all of the amazing events programmed as part of the festival, head to their website.

Our next Q&A is with Dr Liz Conor,  ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. She is the editor of Aboriginal History, a columnist at New Matilda, and has published widely on gender, race and representation.

What drew you to exploring the topic of colonial narratives of Indigenous Australian women?
Before archives were digitised research involved scrolling through reams of microfiche or, that deliciously elemental thing, turning actual pages. I was researching cartoons of Flappers – interwar modern girl types – and I came across these eye-wateringly racist cartoons of Aboriginal women in daily newspapers like The Bulletin, Beckett’s BudgetSmith’s Weekly, etc. My initial reaction was, “Holy motheruvgod!” Some things are best consigned to history. For what could be gained from recirculating these vile, denigrating images? But at that time the Reconciliation movement had swelled in reaction to John Howard’s scuttling of the WIK High court decision, and his refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. I wanted to put these cartoons under the noses of those who said we shouldn’t adopt a “black arm band” view of history. I thought these images could counter this amnesia and the denial of violent dispossession. As a feminist I was drawn to the images of women and children. I observed a very particular racism was leveled at the women, one that hinged with misogyny.
Can you tell us a bit about Skin Deep, and how you researched the book?
Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women traces the tropes, types and leitmotifs of settler perceptions of Indigenous Australian Women. I’m a print historian because, before radio, print was the preeminent institution of the public sphere. It built consensus. It was the means by which reiterated ideas came to be accepted as truth, or common knowledge. I was directed, by a wonderful librarian at the State Library of Victoria, to a remarkable resource, a comprehensive bibliography of everything printed on Aborigines until 1959. As Aboriginal women became more prominent as activists, athletes, writers and artists from this time and put pressure on how they were being represented in media, there was discernible change from this period. So to get to the earlier ideas I started by working through this bibliography. I got the sense that Aboriginal women were perceived within the same spheres as European women – gendered status, maternity, sexuality, domesticity, appearance. I then became maniacally acquisitive about any imagery or description pertaining to Aboriginal women, and, thanks to Trove and other digital archives, started to quantify the predominant perceptions in each field. Unsurprisingly, what came up was hair-raising. The status of Aboriginal women was as chattels and slaves to their brutal overlords. They weren’t married, they were dragged off by their hair – the Bride Capture trope. Aboriginal women were infanticidal cannibals, that is, they killed and ate their newborns. Aboriginal women were undomesticated and lived from hand-to-mouth; they scavenged. Aboriginal women when young were Native Belles, and sexually promiscuous, but as older women they were hideous hags who were left for dead by their families. The archive I compile is about as shocking an account of racism and misogyny as you’ll find in history and anywhere else.
You’re an activist in a number of different subject areas – how has activism driven your writing?
I’m an activist before I’m an academic. My research is in service to the social change I’m involved in working towards. Part of what compelled Skin Deep was my engagement in activism around WIK. I set up the Stick with Wik campaign and we made the armbands, ribbons and house plaques people displayed to express solidarity. In that context I couldn’t just leave those cartoons hidden between the brittle pages of old newspapers, not if they called out the lie that we weren’t really that racist. Other writing and research has been driven by the need to refine my understanding around issues I did campaigns on: representations of rape, maternity leave, native title, as mentioned. Then I moved into guerilla theatre with the John Howard Ladies’ Auxiliary fanclub and the Climate Guardian Angels. I found this form of activism very efficient as media and policing strategy, which worked in well with looking after my girls. They certainly saw their Mummy in some wild get ups, chasing politicians down. They joke about me always going out the door saying, “Now you may need to get a lift from school with bla ’cause I might get arrested”. The joke was I never was – and they guessed it was my secret cherished ambition. Didn’t happen until last year. Whatsa girl gotta do?
How have you negotiated writing about such controversial subject matter, while still honouring the women who have been affected by racism and colonialism? Is this the role of the historian, to bring the facts of our heritage to life despite how little contemporary Australians might want to remember them?
This was the reason I did nearly leave those cartoons behind. I was and still am deeply troubled that I might be merely recirculating damaging material, and opening old wounds. I wrote to every women’s organisation I could find, sent letters to as many Aboriginal women I could think of, and put ads in Aboriginal media advising I was starting the research. I offered to present a slide show of the material and did on six occasions; not enough, but frankly white feminists are not a priority for women trying to fit their own work and study around care and all the demands on them. But in each of the presentations I gave women confirmed that it is really hard-going to bear witness to these insults. It brought up their own experiences but more painfully it seemed, stories from their mothers, grandmothers. Yet they still all said, “This needs to be out there”. Their stories need to be told, but I don’t feel it’s my place to tell them. Hopefully any discussion around the book presents an occasion for their voices to be heard and so far that’s how I’ve been approaching media interviews, inviting women to join me. Yes, most Australians are still living in a cocoon of historical ignorance, sometimes out of indifference, or fear of difference, but largely because this history has been kept from them by the neocons and stomped on when it arose by white men protecting their privilege.
You’re speaking at FWF about feminism and narrative non-fiction – what are you looking forward to about the discussion?
I was very active in feminist circles before I had my girls, ironically. I’m greatly anticipating meeting and hearing the women who are active now and reconnecting with this part of my activism. As for Skin Deep, so far the response from Aboriginal women has been overwhelmingly positive, but it does raise some very thorny questions, and I’m up for that discussion, mostly because I have no expectation I’ll get it right. I’ve written about the origin and about these racist tropes under a concerted tracery, subjected them to a cultural history. But obviously there’s a limit to what I can know about racism. I’ve never experienced it. So I’ll be there to listen up.
Find out more about the Feminist Writers’Festival and register to attend here.
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